Do the Refugees in Lebanon Need a Civil Rights Intifada?
Wavell camp, Baalbek, LEBANON — The Gaza resistance to last month’s Israeli aggression and the 138 to 9 UN General Assembly vote, most people of good will might agree, are important “victories” for the nearly 11 million Palestinians ethnically cleaned from their country, Palestine, as a consequence of the Zionist colonial enterprise, an unsustainable remnant from the 19th century.
Sincere congratulations are no doubt much appreciated here in Lebanon’s 12 refugee camps, including Jilil (Wavell) camp in the Bekaa valley—maybe the poorest of the camps in Lebanon, which contains the most wretched of the Palestinian refugee camps in the world.
Remarkably, a delegation of local politicians from the pro-US-Saudi March 14 alliance, every one of whom is a longtime adversary of granting Palestinians in Lebanon even the most modest civil rights, visited the Gaza Strip last month “as a show of support for the Palestinian people following the latest Israeli aggression on the territory.”
Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra, as a delegate representing party leader, Samir Geagea, and al-Mustaqbal bloc (future movement) deputies Jamal al-Jarrah and Amine Wehbe, representing parties opposed to the Hezbollah-led National Lebanese Resistance, and each with a long history of anti-Palestinian activities in Lebanon, declared on arriving in Gaza that “We are here to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza who are facing Israeli atrocities,” as Al-Jarrah told LBCI TV channel. MP Zahra added, “Through our visit we want to say to all that we reject Israel’s assaults and its deprivation of human rights for Palestinian refugees.”
The last stop of the Lebanese delegation was at Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniya’s house. Presumably aware of their anti-Palestinian careers in Lebanon, Haniya nonetheless graciously welcomed the delegation’s visit, expressing that it strengthens Lebanese-Palestinian relations, LBCI reported. Meanwhile, March 14 General-Secretariat Coordinator Fares Soaid stated to al-Joumhouria newspapers that the “one-day visit is aimed at (announcing our) solidarity with the Palestinian people and committing to securing all their rights and sending a political message that defending major causes like Palestinian refugee rights is not the monopoly of any Lebanese or Islamic party.” Obliquely attacking Hezbollah, which supports the Palestinian cause, Soaid declared that “The party that claims to be more patriotic than all the rest of us will find out from assured his listeners that ‘the structure of the March 14’ delegation to Gaza as well as the entire opposition shows solidarity with the Palestinian people and their legitimate rights.” Meanwhile, Lebanese MP Jamal al-Jarrah declared that: “All parliamentary blocs in Lebanon are in solidarity with the Palestinian people and their human rights case, and the Lebanese people support the Palestinian position, principles, and national rights.”
MP Soaid held another news conference in case his message was not understood, and he stressed that “Hezbollah should make better recalculations and stop making treason accusations against others,” adding that the pro-US-Saudi opposition represents the “true conscience of Lebanese patriotism and struggle for human rights” that fits with the “nationalistic spirit of the Palestinians everywhere. The March 14 presence in Gaza is a clear message that Arab support for the steadfastness of the Palestinian people has no boundaries.”
Well, truth told, maybe MP Soaid got just a little bit carried away with his “no boundaries to supporting Palestinians” statement. Because speaking with his media representative the next day, this observer was advised that the MP did not mean to imply that he or his March 14 colleagues were (after 65 years and counting) yet ready to support in Lebanon’s Parliament the right to work or the right to own a home for Palestinians in Lebanon, even if it was true, as this observer averred, that it would require no more than 90 minutes of Parliaments time to repeal the 2001 racist law forbidding home ownership and enacting the elementary right to work. Rights, this observer reminded the gentleman, that Soaid knows well are given to every other foreigner in Lebanon and which have been granted, by international law, (applicable obviously to Lebanon) to every other refugee on the planet, including by the Zionists brutalizing occupied Palestine. But not to Palestinians in Lebanon.
Last weekend, Alaa, a 26 year old mother of two beauties, is depressed and worries in her home in Jalil Palestinian refugee camp (Wavell) about the coming deep freeze that winter brings to the Bekaa valley and the fact that her husband, by Lebanese law, cannot work, and they have no fuel for their tiny oil heater. The family’s home in Jalil camp consists of a public outdoor toilet up a steep flight of 26 stairs shared by nine families and three rooms being two horse stalls left over from the French colonial period when French General Wavell built the facility to house his colonial’s troop’s horses.
Two just-released studies put the plight of Alaa and other Palestinians in Lebanon into perspective while politicians are holding media conferences extoling their support for Palestinian rights.
Last month’s U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study documents that children like Alaa’s and other Palestinian youths in Lebanon suffer from marginalization from an early age, and that nearly half of these refugee children drop out of secondary school. According to Soha Boustani, spokeswoman for UNICEF in Lebanon, “What is striking is the fact that only 53 percent of Palestinian children in Lebanon even attend secondary school. This means that nearly half of Palestinian youths become marginalized from an early age in Lebanon, creating major obstacles for children’s futures.”
The UNICEF study documents that “living conditions in Lebanon’s 12 official refugee camps are squalid, with poor sanitation, infrastructure and inadequate access to basic services such as health and education.”
Approximately 45 percent of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees are aged below 19, according to a survey of camps and other communities where refugees live in Lebanon, conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF. “The way that Palestinian children are growing up in Lebanon, is a time-bomb. What compounds this tragedy is the fact that if allowed to work many, if not most, of these kinds of problems could be overcome.” PCBS President Ola Awad wrote in an email, “It is very upsetting that these youths have such potential, but no opportunities.… We are looking at a generation bound to live with psychosocial and health problems.” Conditions of life for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon’s camps were described in June by international NGO ANERA as “the worst of the region’s camps.”
While poverty drives many boys to seek informal work from a young age, disillusionment also plays a role in the decision by Palestinian teenagers to drop out of school. According to a UNICEF child protection expert Isabella Castrogiovanni, “a major part of the problem is that Palestinians face stiff work restrictions that effectively bar them from employment in more than two dozen professions. Palestinians in Lebanon face major barriers, including problems related to the right to work.”
Meanwhile, the UNICEF-PCBS also found Palestinian refugee children also suffer from rates of malnutrition so high that they qualify as chronic. Speaking at the launch of the report, Ola Awad, president of the PCBS, said the results of the survey—which was conducted at 5,190 households throughout the country on the living standards of women and children in Palestinian camps across Lebanon—showed that despite some improvement, 13 percent of youths have stunted growth and half of all secondary school age kids are not receiving education. The survey results showed “that 13 percent of children are severely or moderately stunted (or too short for their age) and five percent are severely stunted.” “These indicators reflect chronic malnutrition,” it added. “It’s clear to the eyes when you walk into any camp that sanitation, environmental and social conditions are not apt for children,” said the PCBS’ Awad, “and in such conditions, it should be no surprise to anyone that social violence exists,” she added.
The survey found that young women are the least satisfied with where they live—only 58 percent in Beirut, increasing to 84 percent in the Bekaa Valley, with an average level of 73 percent. Only 54 percent of Palestinian women aged 15-24 replied that they were satisfied with life in general, but levels increased among families who had a least one person employed.
Annamaria Laurini, UNICEF’s Lebanese representative, said that the report’s examples “tell us again that every effort, every possible means and resource of imagination and reflection should be brought to alleviate some of the real burdens facing Palestinian children in Lebanon so they can aspire to the future with determination and optimism facilitated by the right to work and to own a home.”
“Let us commit to ensuring that these disparities are addressed and that no Palestinian child is left behind because of where she or he happens to live or because of the situation of her or his family,” she added.
It is to be hoped that the Lebanese politicians who visited Gaza last month might be inspired to give Palestinians in Lebanon a reason for hope. Failing this, the future is grim in the camps and for Lebanon.
To paraphrase Palestinian Professor Sari Hanafi writing from the American University of Beirut recently, there is a conservative current in Lebanon among politicians that considers the right to work and to own property as the first step towards the resettlement and naturalization of Palestinians. At a time when Arab revolutions are carrying the winds of change and with this a deep reflection on transitional justice, these Lebanese politicians continue to deny social justice to refugees who have lived among them for some 65 years.
The words and winds of Intifada are being spoken and are blowing in the camps.